Monday, September 15, 2014

"We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity" (Eduardo Galeano)

As I sat on a high speed train, making my way to Paris to return home after nearly 6 months research in the south of France I was out of internet contact, scrabbling to catch up with Dot Com’s ‘Moment of Truth’. But from what I've gathered since then, the meat of this latest dish is the information from Snowden and Greenwald, rather than Dot Com’s somewhat suspect email proof of Govt/Warner Bro corruption (though, to be honest, it sounds totally feasible to me, knowing the kind of dirty games both sides are capable of.)

What is clear, though, from the small amount I have been able to catch up with, is that the main chorus of response from Key, his government, and his acolytes, falls into one of the following categories:

  • 1.       ‘It’s a left-wing conspiracy, made up for political gain, and has no substance (hey, I’m the nice guy in this, how could those meanies say such terrible things?)’

  • 2.       ‘It’s all about making us safer – and our govt. wouldn’t do anything that might impede our right to privacy and freedom of speech – in fact, that nice John Key has been a defender – a downright superhero – stopping that naughty GSCB from overstepping their remit by drawing up plans for mass surveillance (not that there ever was a real plan, you understand, just some Norton-antivirus-type good deeds)’;

  • 3.       ‘And, anyway, who cares? If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t need to worry. And it’s all a storm in a teacup anyway, put about by those pesky lefties (commies you know; latent terrorists); In fact it’s only monetary policy that matters in today’s world and the only people who care are the chattering classes – teachers and artists and other dodgy types, who haven’t worked a decent day’s work, not like the struggle our Dear Leader underwent on the trading floor, after having been raised in shoe-box in the middle of the road in that hellhole that was 1960s Christchurch)’.

Meanwhile, what has been exposed is that our freedom and our privacy have been flushed down the toilet, compromised by a Government that has no qualms about wholesale collection of our metadata or manipulating information, laws and protections for their own political gain (or their Big Boy allies.)
It used to be said that Tony Blair was Bush’s lapdog. If that’s the case then John Key is the suckerfish on the US’s something’s-fishy arse. He is selling us out, literally and figuratively, and he’s smiling all the way to the bank … and ballot box.
Just how can he get away with such blatant cronyism and such infidelity to justice and the truth?
I think the biggest question, and frustration, for those of us who care about democracy and social justice, is how the hell can the majority of NZers seemingly not give a toss, and continue to reward Key’s cynical and deceitful behaviour at the polls?

It’s interesting to ponder this after my time in the south of France. During WWII it seems the well-heeled locals in our environs didn’t exactly rebel as Hitler invaded and then rounded up the local Jews. Many just pulled their heads into their shells and did absolutely nothing, focussing solely on their own survival at the expense of everybody else.

Several years ago the German writer Bernhard Schlink wrote an exceptional novel called ‘The Reader’, raising this same question: how can essentially good people stand by and/or abet in such a morally neutral way? Doris Lessing too, in her masterpiece ‘Memoirs of a Survivor’ wrote about the moral lassitude that smothered populations and lay them open to take-over and chaos. And, of course, Orwell’s terrifying peek at ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ is still so bloody prescient it’s likely to be used as a right-wing primer.

What factors, what kind of societal shift, has to take place to lead people to be as gullible and docile as we Kiwis appear to be today?

What I’ve realised is that many of the same variables that beset pre-WWII are at play here today too: a chilling repeat scenario that is infecting France and Europe as a whole, and now our own back yard. It started with a period of relative prosperity, as we had under the last Labour government (just enough to seduce us into taking our eye off the ball.) Things weren’t perfect, but the majority had enough to take politics off the watch-list. But as the financial situation worsens, as it did pre-WWII and more recently (thanks to the implementation of neo-liberal ideologies, corruption and greed that culminated in the Global Financial Crisis), people start to feel the pinch. Incomes fall and jobs disappear. People start to move towards other perceived opportunity. This mobility leads to local pressures, and this leads to the start of demonisation of certain vulnerable (and easily visible) groups. In France/Europe, right now it’s the poor illegal African immigrants, flooding across the sea to Italy and across France, heading for the UK at the rate of (according to a recent Guardian article) around 2500 per week – a huge issue when over 12% of France’s population already live below the poverty line. Add Eastern Europeans (the English Upper-class’s latest legal slaves), Gypsies and other minorities who are struggling and dispossessed, and things start to get ugly – just as they did back in the 1930s, which enabled the kind of fascist nationalism that gave birth to Hitler’s Nazis.

Now, let’s be clear: I’m not comparing John Key with Hitler. But many of the same factors that were brewing to facilitate Hitler’s rise are now brewing again globally – and this time they are also brewing at home. Complacency and smugness won’t cut it this time. This time we are right in the thick of it like everybody else.

And, when things are rough, what is needed to divert public anger from the real source? Why scapegoats of course! Enemies to blame. And fear is mongered, a sure-fire way to keep the public compliant and subdued. In our case, the fear du jour is ‘terrorism’, the global catch-cry designed to silence critics and allow an erosion of privacy and civil liberties in the name of safety. I heard John Key use it just today, as justification for surveillance. And it’s such a beauty, isn’t it? Who among us is not scared shitless by the thought of random terrible violence wrought upon our shores? Our loved ones? (Though God help you if you point out greed and militarism has bred this little monster.)   

Little, by incremental little, our democracy is eroded, our fears of the ‘other’, the unknown ‘enemy’ is heightened, dissenting voices silenced, all power siphoned from the masses to the few now in control. And it happens so insidiously and secretly – colonisation of the mind by stealth – that one day we wake up and realise it’s all over and we’re in a prison of our own making.

How the German people must have shuddered as they realised what they’d let loose. How many of us now shudder as we see the glint of long knives behind our blasé politicians’ smiles. I fear most of our fellow Kiwis have been seduced by trivia and the promise of a bauble here or there, enough to blind them to the fact that the fairness clock’s run down.

What we mustn’t do, as the French did in the south of France back in WWII, is retreat into our shells, stick our fingers in our ears and shout out ‘la la la’. We have to emulate those other types of French – the brave resistance fighters who fought valley to bloody valley, hand to hand. Only this time our weapons must be non-violent: we must speak out, must call on all the global justice and human rights agencies, if need be, to shine a light into the grime created by our dirty politics. And we must rally our forces, activate our own watchdogs (the police, the law fraternity, the ethical media outlets, the Ombudsman, the Governor General (though I personally have no faith in him), the decent grass roots people in the National Party – and we must pledge to keep on fighting and speaking up until this shit has stopped. Talking to people, explaining why it matters, shaking them out of their consumer apathy, and in words of (highly respectful) urgency, get them to wake up and help take back our privacy, democracy and power. No less is called for. Get motivated and join me now!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Au revoir Menton et merci beaucoup

It's been a while since I've blogged about my time in France - I must admit I got so fired up over what was happening as a result of my brother Nicky publishing his explosive book Dirty Politics that I created a new page for Occasional Political Rants  and blogged on that instead.

St Patrick at the Hill of Tara, Ireland
But now we are about to leave, and I don't want to go without catching you up on the last few weeks of our time here and a few thoughts to end upon. After our trip to Italy (as per my last post) I settled back down to research, with the only break in the day to go for a swim in the beautiful Mediterranean sea. I am in love with this! The water is silky and warm, and so salty it holds you aloft in its gentle embrace - I have to admit, I am going to miss this perhaps more than anything else!

Hill of Tara, Ireland

 Two weeks ago we went to Ireland, to take my book Dear Vincent home to its fictional roots. After the heat of Menton it was rather a shock (to put it mildly!) but we had a wonderful time, welcomed by my dear friend Louise Anson, who is the person responsible for setting me off on this crazy search for Heloise in the first place. Despite coming down with an appalling virus that left me feeling grossly seasick for three days, we had a wonderful time.

Mural in Belfast, as mentioned in 'Dear Vincent'
Then it was on to Paris, where I had a series of Fellowship-prompted meetings, which were all very interesting (many thanks to the support of the French Embassy in Wellington). I was invited to speak at the France/New Zealand Association, and spent a very pleasant evening meeting a great bunch of kiwi-born Parisians and NZ-friendly French-born Parisians! Lovely people who made both Brian and I feel very welcome. We were also made welcome by Hon Rosemary Banks, our ambassador to France, who it was a pleasure to meet, and we had a fascinating time talking to  Judith Roze, the Directrice adjointe of the Institute Francais - the French equivalent of our arts funding organisation Creative NZ (though the Institute Francais is also responsible for language teaching and translation as well.) Last 'official' duty was to run a two-hour workshop for teenagers at the American Library one evening - mostly transplanted American teens, though I was thrilled to meet a Kiwi and an Australian there as well!
Paris Natural History Museum

Paris was beautiful - settling into a very benign autumn, still pleasantly warm and the leaves just starting to drift off some of the trees, while others were changing colour, and the huge summer tourist crowds we'd battled in our tripping around during August largely gone. It was lovely to be able to wander streets in a quiet, relaxed fashion, and get a feel for the real Paris. It was also a chance to do a last bit of French-based research at the Musee Cluny - a museum that focuses on the medieval period of France's history, which was very helpful, and to locate the actual places Abelard and Heloise lived during their time in (what would eventually become) Paris. Also, since our hotel was right next door, we enjoyed a morning at the Natural History museum, which was quite remarkable. Huge galleries of bones and fossils, on a scale hard to describe. I have a feeling this place will turn up in a book somewhere - as the impact is quite extraordinary!

Back in Menton, our days are now firmly filled with organising ourselves for the trip back home - and trying to rationalise the ridiculous amount of 'stuff' we have amassed in our 5 1/2 months here. It's also time to say goodbye to new friends, who have made us feel very welcome, and who we hope will stay in touch in the years ahead. It feels very strange - like being pulled in two directions, wanting to be home to see family and to embark on the adventure of grandparent-hood (!), and feeling like the time here has rushed past so fast it doesn't seem possible that it's about to end.
Book promotion/ protest - too good an opportunity to miss!
 By, the by, yesterday, with one of our new friends, writer Merryn Corocoran, we drove through to Antibes for a little book promotion/protest against the imprisonment of captive orcas at a marine park there - very related to my new book. It was a little scary, not knowing what might happen if the French authorities took exception to our stunt - but thankfully we got away unscathed!  

Work-wise, since I've been here I've:
  • edited my book Singing Home the Whale (which was released on the 5th Sept) and dealt with proofs, publicity material and interviews;
  • checked proofs for the second and third books of my trilogy, released in the US;
  • attended the London Book Fair;
  • participated in the Aus/NZ Literary Festival in London;
  • hosted a group from Tawa and St Patricks Colleges at the KM Memorial room;
  • read and taken extensive annotated notes on over a dozen books related to my project, including, fiction, academic essays/papers, religious philosophy, biography and poetry, as well as numerous internet based papers and websites;
  • visited all significant sites to my research within France;
  • signed with a UK literary agent (ye hah!);
  • clocked up over 14,000 in our car, in both research and exploratory trips throughout France and Italy;
  • written one commissioned literary short story;
  • written one commissioned article;
  • written one commissioned non-fiction book article;
  • spoken in Paris and run a workshop as mentioned above;
  • written several blog posts and political rants (!);
  • keep up an obsessive participation in Twitter;
  • hosted 8 groups/visitors, including one family of 6 for a week (which was most enjoyable!)
There's probably more but that's all that springs to mind right now. Have I succeeded in what I hoped to achieve in my time here, with regards to my project? Absolutely! I now have a very clear idea of how to proceed with the writing, how to take this well known story and make it my own, and how to fill the gaps with credible suggestions that are new and add value to the known information. It's exciting! I still have probably about three months of reading/note taking to go, but I would hope that by March next year I am hunkering down to do some serious writing!

I can't adequately express how incredibly grateful I am to the trustees of the KM Menton Fellowship (and Creative NZ and the other generous sponsors) for giving me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It has been such a gift to be able to put everything else aside and direct all my concentration into the project at hand. I think it will pay of huge dividends as I move forward  - and I know that there is still much writing that will blossom out of this extraordinary experience. 

I've learnt a lot about myself over this time as well. It's really brought home to me how important my family and friends are - without Brian here to hold my hand I think I would have given up and scurried home. I found it incredibly hard to be so inaccessible to the people I love - and the times that our internet went down and I couldn't theoretically be there if someone needed me I totally fell to pieces! It makes me realise what a quiet, insular life I generally lead, working away at home, on hand should one of my loved ones need my help. Coming here was a big push for me, small town girl and all that, and yet I also discovered I could survive it, and enjoy it, and cope far better (internet melt-downs aside) than I expected.

I haven't picked up as much French language as I thought I would - partly because I've spent the majority of my time with my nose stuck in a book, making notes, with my interactions mainly over buying stuff or negotiating travel, rather than socialising (in fact, ironically, most of our socialising has ended up being with English speakers - something I wasn't expecting and certainly wasn't designed that way.) But I can understand the gist of French much more easily, either hearing it or reading it, and I now know enough to at least get my point across (even if it is just to say I'm really sorry I don't speak French well!) However, I don't think I'll ever feel the level of anxiety at going to a country where English is not the predominant language again, and I have to say that I have found the French to be helpful, pleasant and very kind - and incredibly patient of our efforts.

There is much here to love - the richness of French (and Italian) culture, the beauty of the landscapes, the antiquity and magnificence of the architecture (in fact, of everything), the food and wine (it's not just my luggage that is coming home heavier!!), the humour and kindness of the people, the warmth, the sea... and there is also much to ponder: the obscene gap between rich and poor (vast wealth, jaw dropping in its excesses), the rise of the National Front and similar racist behaviour, the cat and mouse games played out between illegal African immigrants and the police, and ponderous French bureaucracy (which is enough to make you pull your hair out!) But even the challenges are wonderful fodder for a writer. I am coming home with my head filled with so much potential material that it will nourish my writing for years to come.

Evening in Menton from our balcony - going to miss this!

Thank you. A beintot!

PS Don't forget to vote - and, for goodness sake, vote to make a change! Ethics do matter to our democracy!